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DHAKA, Bangladesh — A hooded Mickey Mouse sweatshirt from Walt Disney Co. Children’s shorts with Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Faded Glory label. Clothes with hip-hop star Sean Combs’ ENYCE tag.
The garment factory in Bangladesh where 112 people were killed in a weekend fire was used by a host of major U.S. and European retailers, an Associated Press reporter found Wednesday from clothes and account books left amid the blackened tables and melted sewing machines at Tazreen Fashions Ltd.
Wal-Mart said it had been aware of safety problems at the factory and said it had decided well before the blaze to stop doing business with it. But it said a supplier had continued to use Tazreen without authorization.
Sears Holding Inc., likewise, said its merchandise was being produced there without its approval through a vendor, which has been fired. Disney said its records show that none of its licensees has been permitted to make Disney-brand products at the factory for at least a year. Combs’ Sean Jean Enterprises did not return calls for comment.
The tragedy is putting a spotlight on dangerous workplace conditions around the world, with no clear answers to who is ultimately responsible. Many major retailers rely on a long and complex chain of manufacturers and middlemen to keep their shelves stocked.
Labor activists have contended that retailers in the West bear a responsibility to make sure the overseas factories that manufacture their products are safe. They seized on the blaze to argue that retailers must insist on more stringent fire standards.
Charles Kernaghan, head of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, said nothing will change unless clothing companies protect workers as vigorously as they do their brands.
“The labels are legally protected,” he said. “But there are no similar laws to protect rights of the worker.”
Bangladesh’s fast-growing garment industry — second only to China’s in exports — has provided jobs and revenue for the desperately poor country, while turning out the low-priced products shoppers in the United States and other countries enjoy. But the industry has a ghastly safety record; more than 300 workers have died in garment factory fires in Bangladesh since 2006.
On Wednesday, police arrested three factory officials suspected of locking in the workers who died in Saturday’s blaze on the outskirts of Dhaka. Police Chief Habibur Rahman said the factory owner was not among those arrested.
Most the devastation took place on the second and third floors. Sewing and embroidery machines and tables burned to ashes and ceiling fans melted.
Nightgowns, children’s shorts, pants, jackets, and sweatshirts were strewn about, piled up in some places, boxed in others. Cartons of children’s hooded sweaters, off-white with red and black print, were marked “Disney Pixar.” Among the Disney garments was a gray sweatshirt emblazoned with the image of Lightning McQueen, the star of Pixar’s Cars movies.
A pair of blue ENYCE shorts was still on a sewing machine. There were also sweaters from the French company Teddy Smith and the Scottish company Edinburgh Woollen Mill.
At least four register books listed such buyers as Wal-Mart, Disney, and Sears.
Josh Green, chief executive of New York-based Panjiva, which tracks shipments for factories outside the United States, said some firms are more conscientious than others in selecting factories. Some pick a manufacturer and do little or no investigation, he said, while others analyze factories’ past infractions and pay monthly visits.
It is also hard for retailers to keep track of their supply chain, he said. While many retailers have contracts with suppliers that don’t allow them to subcontract work without their approval, those provisions are difficult to enforce, he said.